Friday, August 24, 2007

New Orleans

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, the city's prisons are overflowing and inmates have mysteriously died behind bars. Critics denounce a justice system in tatters.

By Robin Templeton

Aug. 23, 2007 | "I never got paid," Dewitt Solomon tells me. Nine months before the levees broke in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he had a minimum-wage job busing tables and washing dishes at Messina's, the popular New Orleans tourist restaurant. But instead of paying him directly, Messina's gave Solomon's paychecks to the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office. Solomon, who was serving time in the Orleans Parish Prison -- the eighth-largest penal institution in the country and the largest correctional facility in Louisiana -- was enrolled in the sheriff's work-release program. The prison was supposed to give him his wages, minus the $500 a month it deducted for room and board, the day Solomon regained his freedom. Solomon says that the sheriff still owes him $1,500.

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New Orleans has the highest incarceration rate of any major U.S. city -- double the national rate. Louisiana also locks up more people in local jails than any state, in part because of state laws, unheard of in other parts of the country, that paralyze due process.

District attorneys have 60 days from the time of arrest to decide whether to press charges and typically use the full statutory time limit. From there, it takes an average of three months for detainees to get a court date. It can take up to three years to get to trial. According to a recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice, 40 percent of those entering the Orleans Parish Prison would qualify to be released on their own recognizance. Instead, the city opts to lock people up if they can't post bail, which is true of three-quarters of the jail's detainees.

While it was bad before the storm, "now the system is only working to pick people up," says Loyola Law School professor Bill Quigley. "It's a vacuum, sucking poor people in and keeping them in. Being arrested now equals being sent to prison."

A year after Katrina, the city's backlog of cases peaked at 6,000. Judge Arthur Hunter of the Orleans Criminal District Court declared that "it is a pathetic and shameful state of affairs the criminal justice system finds itself in" and said that he would mark the one-year anniversary of the storm by beginning to release poor defendants.

But just as Hunter was declaring a constitutional state of emergency last summer, New Orleans was hit by a devastating crime wave. With half its former population, the city's crime rate escalated back to pre-Katrina levels. By the time the city was gearing up for its second post-Katrina Mardi Gras celebration, the national media was pronouncing New Orleans the murder capital of the United States.

Under the headline "Dysfunction Fuels Cycle of Killing in New Orleans," the New York Times reported in February a "uniquely poisoned set of circumstances" fueling the violence, including the destruction of the city's only crime lab, friction between police and prosecutors, community distrust and fear of the police, uncooperative or vanished witnesses and "murderers' brutalized childhoods." The majority of victims and suspects have been young African-American men -- many of them teenagers -- caught up in a drug trade that was reinvigorated, reorganized and made more lethal amid turf wars in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The crime crisis is part and parcel of a wider social crisis. Two years after the storm, only one-third of the childcare centers and 45 percent of the public schools in Orleans Parish have reopened. Mental health services for residents suffering from depression, drug addiction and posttraumatic stress disorder are nonexistent. The city's Housing Authority has slated thousands of units of public housing for demolition, the majority of which were not damaged by the storm.

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Police have been making a record number of arrests, now averaging 1,400 a week. But as the crime problem persists, they don't seem to be getting the bad guys. According to recent exit interviews with detainees leaving the parish jail, conducted by the local criminal justice reform organization Safe Streets/Strong Communities, 80 percent of inmates were being held for nonviolent offenses, mostly on low-level drug and alcohol charges. "While the city is plagued by violent crime, residents who will never be charged with a crime spend weeks in jail," the Vera Institute recently reported, "and some serious offenders are released with no charges."

Ursula Price, Safe Streets' outreach and investigations coordinator, describes the case of a woman in the jail who had called 911 about a domestic-violence incident. "Instead of trying to help her," Price says, "the police ran her name and ended up arresting her on an outstanding traffic violation."

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